Dec 17, 2013

What in the World is the World?: A Brief Contrast Between Materialist and Biblical Perspectives

     What is the world?  Where did it come from?  Is it impersonal and the product of chance?  What are human beings and what is their place in the world?  These and other questions are at the forefront of worldview discussions and will be briefly considered below with extended attention given to the biblical perspective.

The Materialist Picture
     The dominant competitor to a biblical cosmology in contemporary western culture is increasingly that of inconsistent materialism.  It is inconsistent, because many osmose an evolutionary cosmology from the surrounding culture, yet layer it with personalist ideas of immaterial entities including spirits, deities, and even aliens.  This sort of approach allows for the desired sense of autonomy without the bleakness of a purely materialistic outlook.  Yet, despite its inconsistency, or coldness, materialism or metaphysical evolutionism, continues to gain momentum. 

     In a modern materialistic cosmology, “world” is used to describe the physical planet, i.e. earth, or a physicalist conception of reality, or of the earth’s collective inhabitants with emphasis on human beings.  It is dominantly understood to be the habitation on/in which living organisms including human beings are the result of chance generated biological evolution. These live in a world and larger universe that basically reduce to matter, energy, and motion, have no goal, and will eventually loose sufficient energy for life to exist.  It is speculated that the present expansion of the cosmos will either come to a stop and then begin retracting until it and the world in it conclude in a giant “crunch” exterminating all life as we know it; or, it will simply die a heat death and become cold and inert, again, resulting in the extinction of life as we know it (Poythress, p. 28).  The picture painted by modern materialism of the world and its accidental inhabitants is cold, bleak, and foreboding. Despite protests to the contrary, this outlook seems to naturally render social, judicial, diplomatic, environmental, etc. concerns as temporary, purely utilitarian, and ultimately meaningless.  In contrast, however is the biblical perspective.

The Biblical Picture
     Scripture presents a markedly different view of cosmology where the ontological world situated in the vast universe is the primary theatre of God’s self expression.  However, the biblical presentation of the world is multifaceted and is not limited to the mere physical. 

The most common OT term translated “earth,” or “land,” is erets (אֶ֫רֶץ), and often denotes the whole earth, all the inhabitants of the earth, or even the entire cosmos when paired with its familiar polar opposite, shamayim (שָׁמַ֫יִם), “heavens” (Gen 1:1; Deut. 10:14).  However, the primary OT word used to identify the world in a topographical, global, or cosmological sense, and which most closely overlaps with the English term “world,” is the word tevel תֵּבֵל  (Ps. 19:5; 96:10).  This term is used alone or paired with erets to indicate the world in a more specific cosmological sense (Ps 19:4; 90:2; 1 Sam 2:8; Na. 1:5). 
            In such usages God is pictured as the infinite self-existent sovereign reigning over His finite creation, which He created ex nihilo (cf. αἰών Heb 11:3).  The magnificence and singularity of the world’s design is said to give unceasing testimony to the Creator’s majesty (cf. Ps. 19:1-7 for usages of shamayim, erets, and tevel together; Ps 104).  The world is the sphere in which God’s own attributes are manifested powerfully and clearly through His actions and interactions with His creation (cf. Rom 1:20 κόσμος,).  This is most notably so in the fulfillment of His unfolding plan of redemption in the world, over eons or world’s ages, i.e. throughout history (Heb. 1:2 uses αἰών for “world” to express the world’s ages, which came into being by Christ).  All of God’s created works have meaning and significance as they act within the framework of God’s design and plan in world events so that even the most mundane activities have transcendental value (1 Cor. 10:31).  In other words, the universe and particularly the world within it as presented in Scripture is one charged with the grandeur and glory of God, and in which human beings have special value as creations bearing His image (Gen. 1:26; Ps 8:5) and special objects of His interest (Heb. 2:16; Rom 8:38, 39).   However, the present world including the heavens and earth are not as originally created due to the impact of sin, and will finally be done away with and replaced at some point in the eschatological future (1 John 2:17; 2:8; 2 Pet 3:7, 10, 11; Rev. 21:1, 2).

In the NT, there are several key terms used to communicate the idea of “world,” but the most important is cosmos (κόσμος).  This term may be used: 1.) as a reference to the whole earth in a global or planetary sense (Acts 17:24, John 11:9); 2.) to refer to the sum total of all the Earth’s inhabitants (Mark 16:15; οἰκουμένη is used in a similar sense, cf. Matt 24:14, Rev. 12:9, and Luke 2:1 for the area under Roman rule) or material goods (Matt 16:26); 3.) metaphorically as an all inclusive category (James 3:6); 4.) morally & theologically as a reference to the entire world-system in contrast to the Kingdom of God. 

This last use of “world” receives significant attention in the NT.  It is used as a reference to the diametrical opposition between: the world-system finitely ruled by Satan and his forces versus the Kingdom of God, the flesh versus the spirit, unbelief versus belief, or spiritual foolishness versus spiritual wisdom (Cf. John 17:14, 16, 25; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17 κόσμος; Rom 12:1,2 employs αἰών; cf. Frame, CVT, p. 188).  Eph. 6:12 uses a variation of cosmos (cosmokratoras, κοσμοκράτορας) to describe the dark “world forces” against which the believer battles.  In this sense, the believer is said to be in the world, but not of the world and is strongly exhorted to do the will of God while shunning worldliness, which is summed up as “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (John 2:16).  Thus, it is against the world, against immaterial evil forces and principles external to himself that the believer battles in this world.  However, his greatest battle is against the influence of worldliness which manifests in the spiritually hostile desires of his own corrupt flesh (Rom. 7:24), until like the world, he also is made new (1 Cor. 15:42-55).

 Frame, John M. Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought.  Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R
            Publishing, 1995.
 Orr, James.World.”  In The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia.  Edited by James Orr,
            4:3106.  Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
 Poythress, James.  Inerrancy and Worldivew. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012.


  1. Thank you Brian for this study in contrast to the materialistic worldview

  2. Thanks, SlimJim, for the positive feedback. :)